“Directions: Juan Muñoz”

At the Hirshhorn Museum

and Sculpture Garden to June 15

Rarely has the theatricality of art been construed so literally as by Untitled (Washington), the one-room installation that comprises the Hirshhorn’s latest Directions show.

Now that we’ve safely outlived modernism, it is no longer necessary to consider “theater” and “theatricality” bugaboos that threaten to undermine what Michael Fried in his essay “Art and Objecthood” called the “continuous and perpetual present” of modernist painting. Still, Fried had studied his enemy carefully, and many of his observations about the minimalism of Donald Judd and Robert Morris—that it directly implicated the spectator, that it anthropomorphized the art object, that it focused on viewing as an experience possessing duration—hold true for the tableau laid out by Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz.

In the center of the gallery, directly in front of the main entrance to the room, is a sand-encrusted, slightly less than life-size figure—his head tipped back, his eyes shut, his mouth in a grin—that Muñoz calls the “Chinese laughing man.” Over his shoulder are two more figures, bald and sandy like the first, but with eyes made of opalescent marbles. Leaning together conspiratorially, the two look with unveiled suspicion on the first man. A trompe l’oeil “curtain” stretches behind them the width of the gallery.

Stage left is a grouping of four more Caucasian figures, also leaning together conspiratorially. The pivotal figure among them gazes not at the three central figures, but at another “Chinese laughing man” located far right downstage in front of a smaller “curtain.” Like those of the other curtain, its folds are parted to reveal a dark gap from which the Chinese man appears to have emerged. Hanging on the downstage and stage-left walls are two metal racks, each fixed above our heads and bearing 11 hooks.

Muñoz places viewers in an uneasy middle distance. The broadly painted curtains force us back from the walls if we are to maintain their illusion. Meanwhile, the statues draw us in with their size and their texture; we find that their resin exudes a curious aroma suggestive of honey and sweat. The surfeit of hooks suggests a potential correspondence between them and the statues and viewers crowded beneath them.

In the presence of other spectators, the game instantly turns reflexive. Examine others examining the art, and a second network of judgmental glances traverses the room. Muñoz’s figures’ gestures—simultaneously specific (they are what they are) and indeterminate (but what are they?)—point back to the configurations of our own scrutinizing bodies.

The silent public sphere frames unhidden behaviors that nevertheless require interpretation, and interpretation is construed as storytelling: We establish possible narratives to explain the actions and dispositions of those around us.

We see that being in public constitutes entering an arena of criticality. We lay ourselves open just by showing up. We judge others, and we also are judged.

When all the world’s a stage, nobody is left in the seats. CP